The Belmont Stakes, the oldest, longest and most grueling of the three Triple Crown races, celebrates its 150th running this year and a sellout crowd of 90,000 is expected to turn out to see if Justify can add his name to the winners of the American series. The muscular colt who beat the odds in the Kentucky Derby and sliced through the thick fog in the Preakness Stakes will be the favorite in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont in his attempt to become the 13th Triple Crown winner.
An action-packed day is on tap – a loaded card of stakes races and bevy of entertaining options – for the fans that stick around for the main event a bit before 7 p.m. Saturday. Justify is unquestionably the star attraction and his bid for the Triple Crown marks the second time in the race’s storied history that a sweep was on the line in a major anniversary year, following Forward Pass’ failed attempt in the 100th edition in 1968. Justify’s bid also comes 20 years after Real Quiet came agonizingly close before losing by a nose to Victory Gallop.
Unlike Forward Pass and Real Quiet – and many of the other 35 horses who came to Belmont with a chance – Justify brings an undefeated record to the table. He’ll attempt to match Seattle Slew, the sport’s only unbeaten Triple Crown winner in 1977, and not follow in the footsteps of Smarty Jones, who came within a length of a sweep in 2004.
“It’s such a relief, when you have a horse like this to win the first two and look forward to the Triple Crown,” said Justify’s trainer Bob Baffert, who also conditioned the most recent Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015. “There’s a reason why he’s undefeated. He knows where the wire is, we needed an extra five yards from him today and we got it.”
The extra five yards came three weeks ago in the Preakness, when Justify battled early with champion Good Magic and held off late challenges from Bravazo and Tenfold to become the 35th Derby-Preakness winner and the 10th since 1997.
Baffert trained five of the 10 – Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet, War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (2015) and Justify – and has made a personal playground of the Triple Crown races during his Hall of Fame career. Baffert brings 14 victories in Triple Crown races to this year’s Belmont, tied with fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas atop the all-time list. A rubber match of sorts could unfold in the Belmont, with Baffert sending out Justify and longshot Restoring Hope and Lukas running Preakness runner-up Bravazo.
Sixth in the Kentucky Derby, Bravazo finished a half-length behind Justify in the Preakness with Tenfold another neck back. Bravazo and
Tenfold both made late runs to reach contention in the Preakness, but still could not overhaul Justify.
That’s nothing new for Justify, who did not race as a 2-year-old and became the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby after not racing the prior year. Justify won three starts before the Derby and then romped on a sloppy track to win the Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths.
Baffert said he was in “awe of the performance” by Justify in the Derby, admitting to being more relieved than elated after the victory.
“I’d been fretting all week trying to get this big horse there,” Baffert said. “It’s like having LeBron James on your team. You better win a championship with him. That’s the way we feel.
“That’s the best Kentucky Derby-winning performance that I’ve brought up here. He just did it, he just put himself up there with the greats . . .
Hey, I didn’t want to jinx myself, but we knew, I knew I had something really special, but he had to prove it today. The curse thing really didn’t bother me. I was just worried about us, just make sure we did everything right.”
Justify stayed at Churchill Downs to train for the Preakness – just as he did before the Belmont – per Baffert’s style to not return the colt to his California base and avoid shipping across the country. He caught a wet track again in the Preakness, and dueled with Good Magic for a majority of the race as a thick fog rolled into Pimlico about an hour before the race.
Justify withstood the challenge again under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, put away Good Magic in the stretch and lasted to the finish.
“He’s a superior horse,” Baffert said after the Preakness. “It takes a really good horse. We’ve seen horses win the first two but what he’s done in just five starts is incredible. That takes like an American Pharoah talent to do it.
“American Pharoah, his Derby was like this Preakness.
He had to work at it, he came into the Preakness and just showed us what he was. Today it was sort of the same, he had to gut it out. But it’s good for these types of horses, that was the first time he had to lay it down and he came through.”
Now comes the Belmont, which foiled Hall of Famers Northern Dancer, Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence and Silver Charm and superstars Smarty Jones, Big Brown and California Chrome. The big question is can Justify avoid adding his name to that list and instead join the likes of Secretariat, Citation, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Count Fleet. The answer will come in the 12 furlongs and the group of quality opponents awaiting Justify, Baffert, Smith and the colt’s large ownership group led by WinStar Farm and China Horse Club.
“It’s an incredible journey, it’s been quick, but he’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him and he handles it without really losing his composure,” Baffert said last week. “A lot of horses when you run them that many times they’ll start getting nervous or hot, but he seems to be thriving on it. He’s a very intelligent horse, that’s his biggest asset. Not only is he a great athlete, but his mind. The way he stood in the paddock at the Kentucky Derby and in the Preakness, just standing there like he’s been there so many times before. Nothing bothers him. He’s a very fearless type of horse . . . He’s an A personality type horse. That’s another strong point that he has, he has no fear. That’s the way he’s always been and handles everything so well.”